Disability Sport and Participation

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 5th December 2019.

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Photo of Brian Whittle Brian Whittle Conservative

I am sorry. They totally humiliated the parliamentary team 6-0 in a 10-minute demonstration game during the Scottish championships. To this day, Alexander Stewart remains traumatised; when he left the park, it took about 10 minutes before we could get him to even blink.

That example demonstrates that, no matter what the sport, if we do not practise, we will be easily beaten by those who are committed and train regularly. The Ayrshire Tigers are my home team; I have spent quite a bit of time with them and hosted them in the Parliament. They say that transport and cost are preventing the expansion of the team to include all who want to participate, and that those issues threaten their existence. They get together to train and play several times a week. How would they replace that inclusion and participation—which is crucial to their health and wellbeing, as Christina McKelvie has mentioned—if the club was not there?

Disability motorsport gives the chance for a section of the community that is usually overlooked to charge around in a race-prepared sports car. I have been driven round in that car; believe me, Presiding Officer, there is no chance of dozing off. The camaraderie and the fact that people are prepared to recognise them as part of the community is a unique experience that is vital for anybody there. I know that that voluntary service is under threat due to finance, once again. It takes £40,000 a year to keep the car running and to get access to the race track.

I coach a young man who has learning difficulties, which is why I knew Janice Eaglesham so well. He has amazing foster carers who go way beyond the extra mile to ensure that he, and others in their care, miss out on nothing. He went to the European championships last year in Paris and came away with a bronze. He qualified for the world championships this year but could not go because of finance—the championships were in Australia. I have watched that young man develop in stature and confidence over the past few years to a point where he is now at college and living on his own, with the continued support of his foster carers. Just for the record, he runs 23 seconds for 200m, so he is very impressive—he is just a big ball of fast-twitch fibres. Where would he be without that opportunity to train with a squad of athletes, be treated exactly the same as everyone else and travel abroad to represent his country? That is the kind of approach that we need to embrace. We must make sure that there is an opportunity, no matter what the barriers are, to allow people such as that young man to achieve, with all the confidence and resilience that his participation has taught him, so that he can become that contributor to society.

What is the alternative for these sports participants? Is it a lifetime of care, of welfare, of seclusion and isolation? What would be the cost of that pathway, both financially and, more important, to their personal wellbeing and quality of life? I suggest that it would be much greater downstream.

The Scottish Government spends the best part of £18 billion on health and education, but only £40 million or so on sport. Given that there is agreement across the chamber on the huge benefits that sport and activity can bring to health and education—how sport can open up a whole new world of opportunity—is it not about time that we got serious about it and funded it properly?

I recognise that the word “sport” can be daunting to some people. Let us start talking about it from a health and wellbeing perspective. We are talking once again about the preventive health agenda in its most raw form. Nowhere else could it be more aptly demonstrated than in disability sport: inclusion; camaraderie; confidence; resilience; achievement; physical and mental health. Surely that kind of investment has to be an easy ask?

I finish by mentioning Kayleigh Haggo, a young athlete from my area, who won gold in the 100m racerunning, and took the world record at the world para athletics championships in Dubai. She is an incredible athlete, who has also excelled in the swimming pool.

Although sport is not primarily all about medals and international vests, it is great for youngsters to see what is possible. Just that ability to participate: surely that has to be within our gift.